My name, my speech, my self I had forgot.
My wife and children came — I knew them not.
I died. My mother followed. At her call
Bereavement, the unheroic, psychic distress, the forgetting in this life matched only by the irony of knowledge in immortality: all of these responses could be felt at the heart of the establishment as well as by the Shelleyan radical poet. The tone is often closer to overwhelming irony than debilitating horror, yet from both — irony and horror — come a set of aesthetic issues which face the war poem, of response, representation, adequacy and eventual failure.
Objecting to 'Jean Baudrillard's notorious analysis of the Gulf War as a series of rhetorical performances unattached to any material reality', Simon Featherstone says that poems written at war 'seem to insist on the closeness of writing to often appalling personal experience' (Featherstone, 1995, p. 3). Writing and experience are as one, the writing often simultaneous with experience. Yet in his classic study The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell (1975) writes about the long periods of doing nothing in a 'Literary War', in which soldiers filled much time reading and writing. Fussell takes nearly a page to list the reading and literary correspondence of 1917 to 1918 undertaken by Herbert Read in the trenches, a list which ranges from Plato and Cervantes to Marx and H. G. Wells. Hospitals, too, became sites of writing, in which writing became a convalescent occupation, putting in the time. The literary collaboration of the two most-celebrated of Great War poets, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, was cemented in a psychiatric hospital in Scotland, well away from the experiences which had put them there.
Given such a long time to fill not thinking about impending death or mutilation, the war poet must attend to a problem of style similar to that which also confronts the historian. Paul Fussell summarizes the questions of rhetoric and style which faced Kipling, writing one of his 'most decent and honourable works', The Irish Guards in the Great War:
. . . how are actual events deformed by the application to them of metaphor, rhetorical comparison, prose rhythm, assonance, alliteration, allusion, and sentence structures and connectives implying clear causality? Is there any way of compromising between the reader's expectations that written history ought to be interesting and meaningful and the cruel fact that much of what happens — all of what happens? — is inherently without 'meaning'? (Fussell, 1975, pp. 171—2)
We could adapt these questions to ask them of poetry written about war. Kipling's subject is war, and a war which killed many in the Irish Guards along with his son. But finding an appropriate language, according to Fussell, would mean finding 'the clinical — or even obscene — language' which 'would force itself up from below. . . . It was a matter of leaving, finally, the nineteenth century behind'. Fussell finds that Kipling's history fails this test, but the author of the Barrack-Room Ballads, written in the last years of the reign of Queen Victoria, knew about language from below. 'A SON' shows this: 'My son was killed while laughing at some jest. I would I knew / What it was, and it might serve me in a time when jests are few.' There is only one word of more than one syllable in the epitaph, and it is the last terrible action of the son, 'laughing'. The couplet rhymes, but the monosyllables, the two long, nearly unmetrical lines, and the late and early caesurae, recreate in the speech of this war poem the flat experience of the final numb facing of a long bereaved future in 'a time when jests are few'.
For all its economy as it faces its terrible subject matter, the artistic achievement of 'A SON' is rhetorical: it suggests the correct tone for marking both grief and the terrible irony of the manner of the laughing son's death. At the same time, while it may accede to Fussell's 'cruel fact that much of what happens ... is inherently without meaning', the 'happening' of the response recreated in the poem has in itself created meaning. This meaning is not consolation or in any way redemptive of the ironies of a violent death; rather it is a pointing up of the irony and, in the epitaph form, a memorial to the unforgettable. Fussell's 'much of what happens', inevitably drawn at first to horror but ultimately to irony, suggests a famous elegy of W. H. Auden, written while Europe was contemplating another world war in 1939 and 1940:
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives In the valley of its making where executives Would never want to tamper, flows on south From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs, Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives, A way of happening, a mouth. ('In Memory of W. B. Yeats')
Auden's riposte to the political efforts of Yeats may have come from the same disillusion which prompted Day Lewis's repudiation of the Shelleyan poetic role, faced with Europe's return to war. Certainly, his grudging 'way of happening, a mouth', in which poetry is a conduit, a medium, rather than an effective historical agent in its own right, places poetry well away from the scenes of politics or war.
Yeats himself had acted as observer and elegist on the subject of war, no matter how he too had indulged in the hubris of wondering if his poetry had exercised effective political agency. In 1939, reviewing his career, he had asked himself the question, 'Did that play of mine send out / Certain men the English shot?' ('Man and the Echo' - the reference is to Cathleen ni Houlihan, 1900, and the execution of the leaders of the Easter Rising in Ireland in 1916). But it is in 'Lapis Lazuli', viewing a Europe suffering under new wars of annexation and aerial bombing, as well as the obliteration of ancient cities, that Yeats attempts to find a poetry which both faces the destruction of culture and attempts to find an aesthetic response.
On their own feet they came, or on shipboard,
Camel-back, horse-back, ass-back, mule-back,
Old civilisations put to the sword.
Then they and their wisdom went to rack:
No handiwork of Callimachus,
Who handled marble as if it were bronze,
Made draperies that seemed to rise
When sea-wind swept the corner, stands;
His long lamp-chimney shaped like the stem
Of a slender palm, stood but a day;
All things fall and are built again,
And those that build them again are gay.
This poem was written in 1938 while the Spanish Civil War was underway, and views the refugees and emigrants swarming from previously settled societies with some ambivalence. In Yeats's authoritarian worldview, traumatic historical change may not entirely be a bad thing. And there is an aesthetic rather than political embrace of the rebuilding of societies as a necessary, comic, resolution. Yeats will not allow that the wiping out of cities and civilizations is merely an aestheticized act of history: irony remains, in that the classical form of the architect Callimachus stands but a day in these circumstances. But it is perhaps a chilling act of artistic ambition that he attempts to push tragic circumstances out to the comic resolution where the rebuilders, whether or not they also be the destroyers, are 'gay'.
It is Yeats who mounted the strongest arguments against the very possibility of war poetry in the twentieth century. If 'joy' is a mark of great art, then poets who 'felt bound ... to plead the suffering of their men' were not included in Yeats's Oxford Book of Modern Verse, because 'passive suffering is not a theme for poetry'. Consequently, twentieth-century war poetry loses the mythic or heroic along with the loss of joy from the tragic:
In all great tragedies, tragedy is a joy to the man who dies; in Greece the tragic chorus danced. When man has withdrawn into the quicksilver at the back of the mirror no great event becomes luminous in his mind; it is no longer possible to write The Persians, Agincourt, Chevy Chase: some blunderer has driven his car on to the wrong side of the road — that is all.
If war is necessary, or necessary in our time and place, it is best to forget its suffering as we do the discomfort of fever, remembering our comfort at midnight when our temperature fell, or as we forget the worst moments of more painful disease. (Introduction to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1936)
Yeats makes only a small move from war as motor accident to the forgetting of historical necessity, since it is no more significant than a bout of 'flu. But the shock of Yeats's call for such forgetting does ask important questions about the representation of a suffering which may, in Fussell's words respecting Kipling, have no meaning at all. Even Yeats, in his elegy for his friend Lady Gregory's son, killed in the Great War, knows that tragic joy is not an easily achieved consolation for bereavement after violent death. His poem fails to achieve the heroic at its end, tactfully granting the overpowering fact of death.
I had thought, seeing how bitter is that wind That shakes the shutter, to have brought to mind All those that manhood tried, or childhood loved Or boyish intellect approved, With some appropriate commentary on each;
Until imagination brought A fitter welcome; but a thought Of that late death took all my heart for speech. ('In Memory of Major Robert Gregory', 1918)
'Appropriate commentary' is not appropriate in these circumstances. Yet such appropriateness is a major aesthetic preoccupation of those British poets of the Great War who were excluded from Yeats's anthology. The question is not only what commentary can be made facing the subject, but also whether the conventions of previous martial literary genres — epic, heroic, tragic — are appropriate to convey the apparent meaninglessness of an experience newly emptied not only of its epic, heroic and tragic significance, but, frequently, politics and history as well. The new twentieth-century genre which Yeats dismisses, that of the war poem, emerged from these poets. This new genre shares much with the elegy, particularly as the Romantic conception of that literary form often founders on the ineffable, moments like that of Yeats above, where the heart is taken for speech. The genre of elegy performs, in therapeutic terms, the 'work of mourning', a work in which the conclusion of the poem ought to coincide with consolation: Yeats's conclusion above seeks consolation through the very act of writing its 'appropriate commentary', which promises to provide a kind of therapy, while still facing the absolute sense of loss. The losses of bereavement can be daily occurrences for those at war, but the related problem for the early twentieth-century war poet, the accompanying loss of meaning (patriotism or a cause along with mental stability or even sanity), mounts powerful opposition to the generic expectations of a form which ostensibly performs this 'work of mourning' — reintegration of the bereaved personality through the consolations of elegy.
Take these two poems written from within the hell of war, 'The Rear Guard', by Siegfried Sassoon and 'Strange Meeting' by Wilfred Owen. Both Sassoon and Owen enlisted to fight and were decorated for bravery. The Sassoon poem was written ten days after arriving in hospital, supposedly suffering from shell-shock, a diagnosis, according to Sassoon, which was repudiated by the quality of his poem. It tells of an officer groping by torchlight through the tunnels of the Hindenburg Line, and is filled full of the detritus of an experience which presents itself to the soldier in terms of overpowering smell and the discarded objects of war, alternately vivid and obscure according to the beam of the torch: 'Tins, boxes, bottles, shapes too vague to know'. The packed stresses at the beginning of this line, followed by the regularizing iambic beat show Sassoon's sense of great formal control over his verse, even as it suggests those horrors which are held just outside perception. (The prosody of its list also suggests a Miltonic hell: 'Rocks, Caves, Lakes, Fens, Bogs, Dens, and shades of death / A Universe of death', Paradise Lost, II, 621—2.) The poem as a whole is enclosed by three rhymes, the first three and the last three of its twenty-five lines rhyming with each other in reverse. So the poem's opening line, ending with 'step by step' is supposedly completed by the last line's account of a therapeutic coming through, 'Unloading hell behind him step by step'. Both experience and memory of the experience have literally and metaphorically been unloaded by the very writing of the poem, a poem resolutely shifted by its ill author into the third person.
Yet at the centre of 'The Rear Guard' is an encounter which may not be so easily unloaded by the consolations of this elegiac pattern. The officer trips and seeing 'some one' he assumes to be asleep, asks for directions. Hearing no response he then makes an order followed by a sudden moment of frustrated savagery:
'Get up and guide me through this stinking place.' Savage, he kicked a soft unanswering heap, And flashed his beam across the livid face Terribly glaring up, whose eyes yet wore Agony dying hard ten days before; And fists of fingers clutched a blackening wound.
A pause now follows in the text and narrative of the poem, before the officer is supposedly led out of this hell. But it is the absence of appropriate commentary after this experience of beating a ten-days-dead body that resounds most strongly through the poem. We have been presented with a number of objects an army has left behind and one of them is a human body. The officer's eye is led from the unannounced 'livid face / Terribly glaring up', across the body into the eyes and finally to the 'blackening wound', in a sort of numb assessment of information. This is then forced, by a necessary act of repression in the text, to lie without commentary behind the staggering man seeking the light above hell. There is no effort to find meaning here, just to seek escape.
Sassoon's lyric is formally quite enclosed between its rhyming first and last lines, and plays with triple rhymes throughout. Such a technique, and the encounter with the dead in the underworld, suggests Dante. Wilfrid Owen's 'Strange Meeting' is also a Dantesque dream of conversation with the dead, and is no less remarkable for its attempt to find a prosodic form for the experience. In Owen's case this is achieved by sustaining pararhyming couplets throughout the poem. If the Sassoon poem was a deliberate attempt to enclose the experience in poetic form — and therefore to leave it behind — Owen's poem refuses the consolations that the aesthetic completion of full rhyme might bring. The poem was written only a few months before its author's death and was, of course, not prepared for publication by the poet: but it ends with a lacuna, the truncated 'Let us sleep now . . .', which suggests that such experience cannot be allowed to complete itself.
It is in these terms that 'Strange Meeting' suggests a development from the significant achievement of Sassoon's poem. It looks to immortality as it thinks of the life after death of the war poet; but it also looks to the irony that after such experience wars will continue, and that writing poetry about war, or from war — this very poem — will have minimal effect on the future. The dead man whom the poet meets in his dream reveals himself at the end as the enemy he killed yesterday. Yet he too is a poet, a poet who mourns that poetry has proved supremely ineffective in this war. In his way, the dead enemy is the poet Owen used to be:
Whatever hope is yours, Was my life also; I went hunting wild After the wildest beauty in the world, Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair, But mocks the steady running of the hour, And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
Yeats had excluded Owen from his Oxford Book of Modern Verse because his poetry told only of suffering and pity, and did not achieve tragic or comic resolutions. Here Owen gives us a late nineteenth-century Yeatsian poet, but also one who might suggest his Romantic masters, Shelley and Keats. The lyric poet chases after the 'wildest beauty', careless of mortality and time given the generic opportunity of the luxury of elegy where he can grieve 'richlier than here'. That is lost forever to Owen and his vision, and is added to by the irony of his own imagined death, where what he could have said, 'The pity of war, the pity war distilled', is now denied to the world due to that death. Owen views history - the progress of nations and capital - inevitably girding up to repeat this experience. Yet he resolutely refuses a historical gloss, or to allow any Clausewitzean consolations of political objectives resolving themselves through war.
All that is left is the ineffective Keatsian poet cleaning up after the massacre:
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels, I would go up and wash them from sweet wells, Even with truths which lie too deep for taint. I would have poured my spirit without stint But not through wounds; not on the cess of war. Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.
Two previous texts haunt the poet's task here. The first is from Homer, and the description of the chariot wheels of the unquenchably bloodthirsty Achilles at the end of Book XX of the Iliad, where, in Pope's translation, 'The spiky wheels through heaps of carnage tore; / And thick the groaning axles dropp'd with gore'. The other is from Keats's 'Ode to a Nightingale', where the poet had asked to die while the bird was 'pouring forth thy soul abroad / In such an ecstasy!' Here Owen's poet thinks of what he could have done with poetry after war, pouring his spirit through poetry and achieving the psychic cleansing of this experience. The dead poet's speech reaches back to epic for some possible analogy for this cleansing. Yet it concludes such argument as it presents with a riddling last line: 'Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were'. Through the closing insistence of the last three stressed syllables here, and the uncertain rocking of their internal rhyme ('where no wounds were') Owen may be suggesting that lyric pain can be expressed without war, or that those who follow the poets can insist that we sustain poetic pain. But he may also be alluding to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, sweating redemptive blood.
'Strange Meeting' is a dream of conversation with a dead lyric poet, or possibly even dead lyric itself. After numerous twentieth-century wars, the death of poetry has long been proclaimed by those who found, along with Owen and Auden, that the poet's cultural cleansing through pouring out his lyric spirit will make nothing happen. Like Day Lewis and Kipling, much of this effect was felt by those who were not soldiers themselves, but who felt the long memories of war suffered by their parents and grandparents resonate throughout the century. British culture has memories of significant victory to look back on when thinking about war, but epic triumphalism has not generally been the tone in which poets have written. Writing about family experiences in the Great War, personal experience of the Blitz, or facing the fact of the Holocaust, poets who choose to write on public subjects, like Ted Hughes or Geoffrey Hill, filter them through the difficult questions of appropriateness and genre that the war poets raise.
When the troubles broke out again in Ireland in the 1970s, poets turned again to the genre of war poetry in order to find form for writing not only about contemporary horrors but also the responsibilities, political as well as artistic, of the poet. Seamus Heaney returns to elegy through Dante, talking, like Sassoon or Owen, with the ghosts of the dead. These include the seeming 'enigma' presented by an Irish nationalist First World War poet, Francis Ledwidge ('You were not keyed or pitched like these true-blue ones / Though all of you consort now underground'). But the more recent dead in 'The Strand at Lough Beg' and the explicitly Dantesque Station Island sequence, exist uncomfortably between the British war poem and conventional elegy. Not that comfort would be provided by solving the generic problem, dependent on irony as it is. These are the ghosts of the violent dead which face Heaney:
I turn because the sweeping of your feet
Has stopped behind me, to find you on your knees
With blood and roadside muck in your hair and eyes,
Then kneel in front of you in brimming grass
And gather up cold handfuls of the dew
To wash you, cousin.
The cleansing of the elegiac poet amounts here to no more than the laying out of a body in a ritual — religious and aesthetic — which approximates burial rites. The action of the poet is of course, as the Irish poet Eavan Boland says, 'always too late' (Boland, 1990).
In Station Island another murdered ghost has 'an athlete's cleanliness', but produces only an apology for inadequacy from the poet:
'Forgive the way I have lived indifferent — forgive my timid circumspect involvement,'
I surprised myself by saying. 'Forgive my eye,' he said, 'all that's above my head.'
And then a stun of pain seemed to go through him and he trembled like a heatwave and faded. (Station Island, VII, 1984)
Heaney's plea for forgiveness is in its way an Audenesque show of bad faith, to be rejected peremptorily by its recipient. The ghost here was the 'perfect, clean, unthinkable victim', but becomes eventually one more in a series of the wasted male youth of the century killed in wars which they had no part in starting, and little sense of how to prevent: 'all that's above my head'.
The prophecy of Owen's dead enemy carries on through the century, like wounds which refuse to heal. In Michael Longley's elegy 'Wounds' (1972), his father, wounded in the First World War, carries not only vivid memories, but also the lead traces which would flare up and kill him fifty years later: the wound is unheal-able by time or poem. The father is buried as other wounds erupt into more than irritation, and a long unhealed history results in explosions, assassinations and the unaccommodated ironies of the war poem. In such contemporary wars there is not even the difference of language to separate combatants. At the end of 'Wounds' a killer turns to the wife of the man he has killed in front of her, addressing her in the intimacy of the vernacular: 'I think "Sorry Missus" was what he said'.
This sense of the impossibility of closure, or of creating a form which will do the work of the epitaph or the elegy, and thus enable an adequate representation of the experience of war, either at the front or among the bereaved at home, remains at one and the same time a liberation and challenge to poetry. As I have said, the irrelevance of the poet and his poem to these events is marked by many poets and commentators, as Paul Muldoon (1998b) asks: 'How does one find an adequate reprise to the latest reprisal, a strophe equal to the latest catastrophe?' But also the necessity of response is there as a powerful compulsion. It is odd then that as one of the most influential of late twentieth-century poets writing in English, Muldoon returned to the old interchange of pastoral and epic which had attracted Cecil Day Lewis to Virgil, and had in its turn led Virgil himself to withdraw from the poem of empire and war. Muldoon's Hay (1998) performs what Seamus Heaney in The Spirit Level and Michael Longley in Gorse Fires also did during the 1990s, and attempts to rewrite classical versions of aftermath. Heaney recasts Aeschylus ('Mycenae Lookout') and Longley gives a grim version of the blood-bath at
Ithaca wrought by Odysseus after he finally returned from war ('The Butchers'). In Muldoon's rewriting of the sack of Troy, the end of war is poised ambivalently between a final catastrophic blood-letting and the deliverance of the poet and hero, escaping from the massacre into a new world:
'The beauty of it,' ventured Publius Vergilius Maro, 'is that your father and the other skinnymalinks may yet end up a pair of jackaroos in the canefields north of Brisbane.' We heard the tink of blade on bone, the Greeks alalaes as they slashed and burned, saw Aeneas daddle-dade his father Anchises, and his son, Iulus, to a hidey-hole on the slopes of Mount Ida.
'The beauty of it is that I delivered them from harm;
it was I who had Aeneas steal back to look for Creusa, I who had her spirit rub like a flame through his flame-burnished arms, I who might have let him find his own way through the streel Of smoke, among the cheerless dead, the dying's chirrups.' (Paul Muldoon, The Bangle (Slight Return))
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